Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: The Alphabet Versus The Goddess

by lizard

(posted a day early because tomorrow I’m heading up to Glacier)

Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus The Goddess is one of the most intriguing books I’ve ever read. His premise feels right. Below the fold you will find a long but worthwhile synopsis by the author.

But before we get to that, I’d like to prime the synopsis with another great poem by Sharon Olds. This one comes from her first book, Satan Says, published in 1981. The poem is perfect for this post, and I would suggest rereading it after finishing Shlain’s bold assertion.

*

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BRAG

I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the center of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.

I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.

I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safety,
my stool black with iron pills,
my huge breasts oozing mucus,
my legs swelling, my hands swelling,
my face swelling and darkening, my hair
falling out, my inner sex
stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.
I have lain down.

I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the center of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

—Sharon Olds

Shlain has this to say
:

People are always asking why a surgeon would write a book about the goddess. The thesis occurred to me while finishing my book Art & Physics where I treated those two subjects as if they were languages: “art” being the language of image and metaphor and “physics” the language of numbers and equations. In that book I proposed that the artists’ images anticipated the later physicists’ ideas. As background, I read deeply into the theory of how we humans communicate with each other. With all this stuff percolating in my brain, I went on a Mediterranean archeological site tour. At almost every shrine we visited, our guide told us, “This used to be a shrine dedicated to the goddess, and then for unknown reasons, unknown persons reconsecrated it to a god.” Suddenly, I was contemplating the overwhelming archeological and historical evidence that all early peoples worshipped some manifestation of the goddess. Indeed, women were priestesses of their religion, and property passed generally through the female line. But with the advent of Western culture, the goddess disappeared. In the three religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – women were actually banned from conducting religious ceremonies.

What event in culture could have been so immense and so pervasive that it could change the sex of God? There are many explanations, but none satisfied me until I realized that the goddess started losing power about the same time as people began to read and write. It occurred to me that the process of reading and writing could have changed the structure of the human brain and somehow shifted everyone into a patriarchal and misogynous mode. Sophocles once warned that nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse. Well, the invention of writing was certainly vast. So what was the curse?

To build an argument for a strange neural anatomical hypothesis explaining an historical enigma, we have to examine how we evolved as humans. We are the only species of higher animals whose females have a feature of sexuality called menses, during which she bleeds and loses a significant amount of blood. Blood contains the all-important element iron, supplied by meat, so menses became the prod to encourage us to start hunting. The problem was that we were ill equipped to be predators, but for the fact of our exceptional cleverness. So we became more clever – and our brains got bigger, therefore so did our heads. But our babies’ bigger heads began to get stuck in their mothers’ birth canals, causing the death of both mothers and babies.

Nature’s solution to this was inspired. It pulled out all of the neuronal pathways that determine instinct and culture. All other animals have these when they’re born, but we don’t. We only acquire culture through a startling new agent we developed called language. Language was such a profoundly new evolutionary innovation that our brains had to be completely redesigned in order to handle it.

The end result was that our brains split in two. Some 90% of our language centers were deposited and rewired in the left hemisphere of the brain, where all other linear functions reside, such as logic, arithmetic, causality, determinism and rationality. The remaining functions took up residence in the right hemisphere, where information was processed in a totally different fashion. It was more spatial, holistic. The right hemisphere can look at something and see the pattern and the big picture. It can figure out how to get out of a maze, it can see the parts to the whole, and most importantly, it can recognize faces.

Actually it wasn’t only our brains that split. Our visual field consists of two very different types of vision, namely rods and cones. Rods, which compose about 99% of our retina, see the big picture too, the parts to the whole. They see in dim light, and can pick up peripheral vision. On the other hand, cones are incredibly clear. They are for color, and they see in great detail. If you think about it, the cone vision of the eye corresponds to the kind of mental processes existing in the left hemisphere, and the rods correspond to the kind of mental processes existing in the right.

There is more. In addition to our brains and our eyes, our left hands became the passive, protective, receptive extremity – it holds the baby, or carries a shield – and the right hand became our agent of action. So we have a split brain and a split eye and a split hand, and now we are equipped with the secret weapon that no animal on the face of the planet can defend against: It’s called foresight.

About 10,000 years ago, the advent of animal husbandry and agriculture caused all our feminine attributes to rise to the fore. Just about every agricultural society of that time worshipped some manifestation of the Earth goddess. She was an all-powerful deity that replaced the numinous spirit world of hunter-gathers. She was responsible for bringing the Earth back to life in the Spring after winter’s decay. But then, for unknown reasons, even though the cultures all remained agricultural, the goddess began losing power. Next thing, she was gone.

There are many theories about what happened. Some say horsemen from the North conquered the goddess-loving people. Marx and Engels put it down to wealth, excess land, and archaic states. I believe it was an inside job. I think the thug who mugged the goddess was actually literacy.

A literate person has a totally different world view than a non-literate person. The first forms of literacy, cuneiform and hieroglyphics, occurred about 5,000 years ago, and were so complicated that less than two percent of the population could read and write. About 1500 years later came the greatest technological revolution in our history; that is, the alphabet. Now ordinary working people could learn how to read and write in a very short time.

And what would be the effect of learning a linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract form of communication on our culture?

I suggest that a culture adopting an alphabet would denigrate right hemispheric values because the alphabet is a left hemispheric mode of reception. And this right hemispheric denigration would manifest in two principal ways: Women’s rights would be taken away; and images would be declared abominations.

The first book ever written in an alphabet was the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. And the most important passage was the Ten Commandants. The first commandment is the most revolutionary sentence ever written. It states: “I am the Lord thy God there is no other.” The second prohibits us from making images. Thus, there is a profound rejection of any goddess influence and a ban of representative art.


  1. Ingemar Johansson

    Friday won’t be complete
    Without hucksters loose on the street
    Selling enviro wares
    If anyone cares
    Come on down to Crazy Pete’s.

  2. Got Out Once More

    Hee hee hee … Sharon Olds said “cock.”

    Shlain’s analysis is as big a reach as I have ever read, a bad case of confirmation bias. I much more lean to the hypothesis that denigration of women and monotheism go hand in hand, especially since the deity in the Thee Biblical Religions happens to be male. Th spread of Christianity, the tale of Jesus all are ready-made for male domination. Within those religions is hatred of women, especially in Islam. That comes about due to power, as I see it. Women have sexual power over men, and men resent that.

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